amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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A Tour Down Under, Marlborough

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The most famous wine region of New Zealand, Marlborough, is found in the north East corner of South Island. No less than 77% of the country’s wine originates from Marlborough, around the towns of Blenheim and Renwick in particular. Factor in the fact that 85% of Marlborough’s grapes are Sauvignon Blanc and we begin to see the importance of this variety to the reputation of wines from the region and, indeed, the rest of the country.

Certainly, the region is very different to Nelson, the focus of my last blog. There the vineyards are part of a much bigger agricultural scene, fruit orchards, hops, cattle and sheep mix with vineyards in the Nelson area to create a true pastoral landscape, e.g. in the Moutere Valley.

Journeying into Marlborough across the hills from Nelson the vines do not appear until shortly before reaching Renwick. But then vines stand, row after row, mile after mile. Wineries which put the country on the world wine scene stand side by side, Wither Hills with its many vineyards, Hunter’s, Villa Maria are all producers which played a major role in my personal learning about wine and, especially, wines from New Zealand.

The winery which first drew attention to and recognition of the potential of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was Cloudy Bay. Named after the beautiful bay to the East of the vineyards. This winery now produces a number of different wines but it was the Sauvignon which really made its name and established New Zealand as a quality producer. Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is also the long time favourite of my wife so a visit was obligatory.

Cloudy Bay itself

A very professional tasting room and comfortable garden allowed us to taste the celebrated Sauvignon 2017 which was classic Cloudy Bay but also the oaked version Te Koko 2014 which wears its wood ageing well. In addition we were able to taste a rare old version of the Sauvignon, from 2005. There was still plenty of acidity, the wine had become a little flabbier but had a dry finish. Not many bottles of 12 year old Cloudy Bay still exist I’d imagine, it was interesting to see that they do age quite well though I would drink any bottles younger. Pelorus NV sparkling wine and the Pelorus vintage 2010 (only available at the cellar) were both pleasant enough, the latter definitely had more weight and flavour. Chardonnay 15 was wild fermented in barrel (82% of it at least) and the oak was subtly done, a good example of the grape.

Herbicides and machine harvesting but a lovely setting

On to reds and the Pinot Noir 15 was very good, one of the best Pinots of the trip so far, fresh, fruity, juicy with good length. The Pinot Noir 2010 had already gone the way of so many older NZ Pinots, all forest floor and mushroom. It obviously appeals to Kiwis but not to this Rosbif. Neither did the Central Otago sourced Pinot Te Wahi 15, there was some rose scented fruit but this was very oaky and tannic, again not my style. There was also a very good Late Harvest Riesling, good Riesling notes, acidity balancing the sweetness.

Interestingly, Cloudy Bay has made the decision to reduce the varieties it uses. Riesling and Pinot Gris are out, they will concentrate on Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir alone. Cloudy Bay owns 50% of the vineyards it uses to make its wines and works with growers for the other 50%. This is common in the region, growers provide the grapes, the winery gives instructions on how they want the vines to be tended.

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There are wineries which grow all their own grapes and I visited two, both organic producers. I had tasted Fromm wines before, notably a very nice Sauvignon Blanc La Strada 2016. On this visit we mainly concentrated on reds. Pinot Noir La Strada 16 was a little unforgiving to my taste, not much fruit showing. For once the older wine was more to my taste, the La Strada 10 being more open and balanced, red fruits and just a little earthiness. On to two single vineyard Pinot Noirs. Churton 16, more weight and concentration than the entry level, still very young and tight. Quarters 16 was different, more spicy and fruity, grown on more clay soils than the Churton. On to Syrah and I liked the La Strada 16 with its peppery, spicy notes and more friendly flavours. The Fromm Syrah 16 was more concentrated with rich pepper notes, quite tannic still, I am sure this will be very good. I must add that Syrah has been my favourite grape amongst red wines in New Zealand.

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Fromm vines

Two white wines to finish, the highlight of the tasting for me was the Riesling Spätlese 17, well named being very much in the style of a Mosel spätlese, lovely apple fruit with zingy acidity and a lick of sweetness too. Finally, a Late Harvest Gewurztraminer 15 had classic aromas of the grape, spicy and floral but the wine had very fresh acidity cutting through the sweetness. Apparently this variety suffered in 2018 but I liked this wine, very well made.

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My favourite visit of the day though was undoubtedly to Hans Herzog. The domaine is next to the Wairau river on one vineyard which the Herzogs have planted with lots of different grape varieties. They have planned this carefully so that sunnier aspects get grapes such as Montepulciano and Tempranillo whilst cooler areas are planted with white grapes and Pinot Noir. The plan makes for fascinating reading.

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This is a biodynamic domaine and only a small amount of SO2 is added at bottling, these would qualify as natural wines for many people though I was surprised that harvesting is mostly by machine. There is a beautiful restaurant in the gardens next to the vines, with a splendid trellis supporting lots of different grape varieties and notes to explain each one. A treat for those, like me, who love to study ampelography. The food was very good too.

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The Herzogs are Swiss and Hans comes from a family of winemakers of long standing. It was a young Swiss woman, Petra, who gave us a very generous tasting. Wild Gewurztraminer 2017 is named after its open fermentation and longer period on skins. It had vibrant aromas in the glass, spicy and dry flavours, a real treat and a sign of good things to come. Pinot Gris 16, 5 days on skins, was apple and pear notes, lovely and fresh.

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Very ripe Roussanne grapes 

The Sauvignon Blanc 15 was made on lees which are stirred and there was a yeasty aroma to the wine which was very dry and quite textural, one of those rare wines which actually tasted of …. grapes. Very good. A sparkling rosé wine to follow, Cuvée Therese made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with red fruit notes and a dry finish. Finally Gruner Veltliner 14, yellow in colour, pear and quince aromas and lovely texture and clean finish, lovely.

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On to the reds. Pinot Noir 2011 was macerated 18 days on skins, aged for two years in bottle. My favourite Pinot Noir of New Zealand so far, fresh, vibrant spicy red fruit with a balancing acidity and complexity and gentle tannins. This is how Pinot Noir should be in my opinion. Tempranillo 14 was a lovely surprise. This is not a grape I usually like that much but this example was just lovely. The light red fruity notes of a young Rioja but without any oaky notes even though it was aged in barrels for 22 months. Energetic, lively, smashable. Spirit of Marlborough 09 is a Bordeaux style wine made from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 26 months in barrel and then more years in bottle. Again this would not be my favourite style of wine but somehow this works. Finally, and definitely worth waiting for, was the Nebbiolo 2013. Petra told us that this was the wine which is opened as a treat at the end of harvest, only one barrel was made. It is a stunning wine, easily my favourite in this New Zealand trip. Aromas of rose and fresh tropical fruits (yes in a red wine) and then, amazingly, hints of peach and apricot as well as red fruits. Light in the mouth yet with concentrated, long flavours. I loved this wine and was very impressed by the range, there is a real energy and vivacity in them. So different to a lot of the more commercial wines produced in the area and, hopefully, a sign that quality will win through.

Ampelography lesson over lunch, perfect!


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A Tour Down Under, Otago

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On to New Zealand with an interesting flight into Queenstown, mountains either side of the plane as we came into land. Any qualms were soon allayed by the region we were in, Otago is simply one of the most beautiful regions I have ever visited. Lakes, mountains, unusual wildlife, small towns, little villages. Undoubtedly tourism keeps the economy buoyant, Queenstown itself is a busy town of 16,000 residents, which population doubles every night with visitors.

Otago is a relatively new vineyard region. There had been tentative plantings from the 19thC but when Northern Ireland born Alan Brady planted a first commercial vineyard in the Gibbston Valley in the early 1980s he was mocked for being a dreamer. Yet Brady had realised that at a latitude of 45˚C South the area was at a similar level to Burgundy at 45˚C North. Success followed as did other growers and Otago is now widely regarded in the wine world as one of the most promising, up and coming wine regions. Pinot Noir dominates (that Burgundy parallel) with 75% of planting, whites make up the rest with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (just 2%), Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer amongst the most common grapes.

                   Fighting two problems: small turbines to combat frost in the air                                      and netting to stop wax eyes from eating and damaging grapes

Within the region there are sub regions which do have different climates and geology. The Gibbston Valley, for example, is relatively cool and on schist whereas other major growing areas such as Bannockburn are warmer, more open and on sandy, silty soils. This has an effect on growing time, ripeness etc. We must also bear in mind that the wines being produced are from relatively young vines, most are around the 20 year old mark and will mature and produce more complex wines with age.

Not knowing the region at all I decided to take one of the wine tours available and travelled with Appellation Wine Tours, which proved to be a wise decision. We were taken to 4 wineries in different areas of the region and tasted over 20 wines, not to be recommended if driving. Our guide Gavin was very well informed, enthusiastic, patient and extremely helpful with a good sense of humour.  He certainly made it a very good day for everybody. Lunch was provided too, a very good platter (vegetarian in my case) with a glass of choice at Wooing Tree winery in Cromwell.

The main domaines we visited were Mt. Rosa, Domain Road and Kinross which is a type of co-operative where 5 different wineries sell their wines.

Mt. Rosa is in Gibbston Valley and we tasted a range of whites and Pinot Noirs. The Sauvignon Blanc was textural and not your typical Kiwi SB, nice. I was unconvinced by the Pinot Gris but liked the Pinot Blanc 2017 with its fruity, melon flavours. Trish MacKenzie kindly poured 3 vintages of the Pinot Noir, it was interesting to see vintage difference from this relatively cool area. The 2016 was juicy and fruity, the 14 starting to show forest floor, earthy flavours. The 15 was much more austere, apparently it snowed at the end of harvest time. The Pinot Noir Reserve 2016 was more intense with oak influence.

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Domain Road is in Bannockburn on a hillside with lovely views. The vines are covered in nets as most are in New Zealand because of the Wax Eye bird which eats grapes but also leaves some leaking juice so that rot can set in. They are a real nuisance. The Estate Pinot Noir 14 was plummy but already showing those earthy notes and the French oak was apparent. Single vineyard Defiance 2016 was more juicy and serious with the oak influence again. 2013 single vineyard Paradise Reserve was darker still. The best of the grapes are taken and given extra barrel ageing. However, the whites were much more to my taste to be honest. The Sauvignon Blanc 15 had typical NZ flavours but was subtle, concentrated and very clean, one of the best examples from NZ that I recall. Defiance Chardonnay 16 was barrel aged and though the wood gave crème brulée aromas the flavours were more subtle, stone fruits and spice. I liked it a lot. On to two Rieslings. Water Race 16 is very dry with only 9gms of residual sugar, not very aromatic but lime and citrus flavours more than compensated. Very refreshing. Duffer’s Creek 15 has 20gms of residual sugar and in an off dry style. Very appley on the nose with lime flavours again and a touch of sweetness. I very much liked this and bought some too!

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Finally, on to Kinross. Coal Pit wines have been running since 2006, we tasted their Sauvignon Blanc 2011. Interesting to taste an older SB and what an aroma, sweetcorn! Classic NZ Sauvignon Blanc flavours. Hawkshead Riesling 2015 was organic and has 11gms of residual sugar. Very kerosene on the nose but clean, citrussy flavours. Domain Thomson’s Surveyor Thomson Pinot Noir 13 is made on biodynamic principles. This 5 year old wine was very mushroomy and savoury. Fascinating to taste Valli Pinot Noir Gibbston Valley 2016 made by Grant Taylor, 4 time winner of Decanter’s Best Pinot Noir in the world award. The fruit was apparent but there were already savoury notes and quite apparent oak. Finally, and appropriately, The Wild Irishman Macushla Pinot Noir 15. This is made by Alan Brady and with minimal intervention, a slight use of SO2 on bottling but otherwise a classic natural wine. Interesting to see that this was the favourite wine of others in the group with its wilder, spicy freshness. The godfather of Central Otago still leading the way!

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I had the opportunity to taste other wines during my time in Queenstown. Carrick winery is organic and its Chardonnay 15 was one of the best examples of that grape that I have tasted in some time, delicious. Of other Pinots, I liked Prophet’s Rock 15 more than Two Paddocks 11. And that highlighted an issue for me. I found many of the Otago Pinots were showing very savoury flavours at a relatively early age. My personal taste is towards the fruitier Pinot and so, the younger bottles appealed more to me. There was also a lot of oak use, not all subtle either. So maybe it’s just me but I wasn’t completely convinced by Otago Pinots, much more so by the white wines. I go against expert opinion in saying this I have to say.

This really is the most stunning wine region and as vines mature and winegrowers learn more and more about their terroir and vines it will certainly produce increasingly good wines. I would be very, very happy to return and find out for myself one day.

 


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Grapes and climate change

Jeff forwarded me an interesting article from Le Figaro this week. The subject was research published in the journal Nature, Climate, Change focusing on the effects of climate change on viticulture and the likely need for change.

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Some, such as Trump, deny such change of course but those of us in the real world can consider evidence. Vendanges in France now take place on average 2-3 weeks before they used to around 1970. The long history of wine writing means that we know that in Burgundy, for example, harvests are at their earliest in 700 years. Extreme weather in all seasons is more common, made worse by some agricultural practices such as soil impaction from machinery as well as the effects of herbicides which discourage rain from soaking into the soils.

As average temperatures rise seemingly year on year and water shortages occur more frequently in the Languedoc and other regions then viticulteurs face the problem that traditional grape varieties ripen earlier and earlier and struggle in drought conditions such as those shown in the map below indicating ’emergency’ zones in summer 2017.

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The researchers, such as Elizabeth Wolkovich from the Harvard University Centre for the Environment, suggest that testing different grape varieties will be necessary. At present many of the world’s leading wine producing countries are dominated by 12 ‘international varieties’ such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Riesling and Pinot Noir.* The list at the bottom of the page shows how much these vineyards are dominated by the international varieties.

France is more varied with 43.5% planted with these grapes (though 85% under the top 20 grapes). Altogether more than 300 grape varieties are planted around France. Organisations promoting rare and forgotten grapes, eg Wine Mosaic, are gaining traction and the researchers believe that by finding grapes with longer growing seasons and later ripening then regions badly affected by climate change might find ways to preserve their vineyards and traditions.

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I have reported many times how Jeff Coutelou has been planting many different cépages. He believes that not only do they provide variety in the vineyard and bottle but that the mix of different grapes in vineyards helps to prevent disease spreading. Castets, Piquepoul Noir, Terret Blanc, Morastel, and even an Inconnue (unknown) are grapes planted int he last few years and he is looking at others such as Picardan which is related to Clairette and Mauzac. Great wines such as Flower Power have resulted from these plantings, more will follow.

This is the way forward, experimenting to find grapes which make good quality wine and which can stand the climatic changes which we face.

 

* % area of vineyards under the 12 varieties

China – 93 (almost 75% Cabernet Sauvignon)

New Zealand 91.6

Australia 84.5

Chile 77.6

USA 70

 

 


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Reading

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I may be away from the action of the Coutelou vineyards but my fascination with wine, and particularly natural wine, continues to grow. I have recently read two things which I thought were worth sharing on here.

Firstly from Bibendum came this piece of information about the UK.

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This growth of interest in natural wines is, of course, very pleasing to me, a long time advocate of the style. Not all these wines are natural but the interest in this sector shows a shift in demand and, also, realisation from merchants that the demand is there.

Caveat emptor! Not all wines labelled as ‘natural’ are that, a consequence of the lack of regulation. In particular beware high street retailers with wines from big companies. Artisans who practice natural methods in the vineyard and cellar are what matter to me. To identify such producers you could do worse than look at the website ‘vinsnaturels’ which is in French and English. The app Raisin is another useful way to locate producers and retailers.

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The most interesting article I have read though was from The Wine Enthusiast, written by Anne Krebiehl MW. In it she describes what we are learning about soils and the life which is in there. The rhizosphere is the soil immediately surrounding the vine roots and research is revealing the microbial and fungal life in there. This is something which Jeff has described to me over the years and it is fascinating to look at soils with small white fungal fibres which form a network around the vines, supporting them with nutrition and chemicals whilst benefiting themselves from the vines in a symbiotic relationship. Encouraging life in the soils is, therefore, hugely important; reducing their compaction from tractors etc as much as possible, composting them, avoiding chemicals where possible.

Mycorrhizae in Rome vineyard

There is much research still to be done and we are in the early days of understanding how the soils influence the vine and, consequently, the wine. However, early research supports the careful management of soils and vines by vignerons such as Jeff Coutelou. Respect the environment, encourage life. As he said after the recent damage done to his vineyards the best response is to plant. Trees, bushes, flowers, any plants. Encourage ecosystems and they will repay our guardianship.


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In Laudem

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In typically moderate and generous fashion Jeff Coutelou’s response to the vandalism on his vineyard was to remind us of his philosophy for viticulture.

He reminded us that generations of vignerons, as with agriculture in general, were persuaded that mass production aided by mechanisation, chemical fertilisers was the way forward. Grubbing up hedgerows and trees to create space for more vines would boost production and income. Irrigation by water from the Rhone was just the latest of these modernisations.

The consequences have shown how those generations were misled. Compacted soils with little or no life in them, falling numbers of birds and insects, diseases spread through waves of monoculture, vines hooked on fertilisers to keep production high.

In 1987 when Jean-Claude Coutelou made the leap to organic viticulture there were only 200ha of organic vines in the Hérault. Now there are 20,000ha. A tide has turned but it is not easy for everyone to accept that mistakes were made. Those who have returned to traditional methods, planting hedges, bushes, flowers and trees for diversity are, ironically, viewed with suspicion. The birds, bats and insects which shelter there help to fight disease. Thirty years of organic practice make for soils rich with life. And yet some don’t get it.

It is a privilege to stand in Rome vineyard in Spring, listening to the birdsong, bees and cicadas, watching the butterflies and bats, enjoying the colours of the flowers. Knowing that this rich diversity helps the vines makes it even more special. It is the right path aesthetically, morally but, crucially, for the wines too. Nature wins and benefits us as all.

So, Jeff is right. I stand with him.

 

 


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Shocking news

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When Jeff contacted me on Saturday he passed on shocking news. On Wednesday, whilst he was in Paris someone deliberately set fire to a hedgerow and olive plantation in Segrairals vineyard. The man (Jeff does know who it was) used petrol to burn them down. This was arson, pure and simple, an evil act.

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Just the previous month there had been another incident, this time accidental. A neighbour was burning waste and it spread onto Peilhan vineyard destroying young trees and some vines.

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Once is bad enough but two incidents is almost unbearable. That the second was an act of malice makes it even worse. When someone is trying to develop the environment with new planting one would imagine they would be encouraged. Instead Jeff has met with acts of vandalism and now arson. Fortunately he is a strong man and will fight on but he deserves our support.


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Rare grapes and Vin De France

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This chart was published two weeks ago even though the information refers to 2010. I found it fascinating (I am a sad case I understand). Some of the information would be expected, New Zealand with its Sauvignon Blanc for example, Australia with its Shiraz. I was rather surprised to see Merlot as 13.7% of the French vineyard area however. Admittedly this is partly because it is one of my least favourite grape varieties, though, as always, fine examples are available from good vignerons.

Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier, were in vogue in the 80s and 90s when I became interested in wine. Languedoc producers reacted to this popularity by planting these cépages, it was commercial sense. One of those producers was Jean-Claude Coutelou and Mas Coutelou still has his Cabernet and Merlot parcels.

However, one of the more recent trends in the region has been the revival of older and rare grape varieties. At Mas Coutelou Jeff has planted grapes such as Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Morastel, Piquepoul Noir and Terret Noir in Peilhan (see photos below).

Earlier this year Jeff received a visit from Domaine De Vassal, guardian of the national treasury of grape vines. They record and keep examples all grape varieties as I described after a visit to Vassal. On this occasion they were intrigued by two vines in particular; firstly Clairette Musquée, planted in Peilhan and, secondly, the unknown variety in Segrairals. These are just part of the programme of replanting and grafting which has taken place at Mas Coutelou. The photos below show grafting of other cépages in Flower Power such as Aramon Noir and one unknown variety.

After months of research the experts at Vassal have concluded that Clairette Musquée has its origins in Hungary where it was known as Org Tokosi. It was planted in the Maghreb and after Algerian independence it was probably brought to France by those who repatriated to France.

The unnown variety turns out to be an Italian cépage, quite rare, called Delizia Di Vaprio. This is, according to my copy of Pierre Galet’s “Dictionnaire Encyclopédique des Cépages”, a grape authorised in Italy and Portugal. Under the rules of France’s AOC system it would not be allowed. Jeff, however, chooses to issue his wines under the Vin De France label which means he is free to choose his own methods and grape varieties. Whereas a Languedoc AOC wine must include grapes such as Syrah and Grenache Jeff can choose what to put in his wines including wines from just one grape variety. It also means he can plant these rare grapes and make wines from them which he truly loves and wants to make.

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Interestingly one AOC, Burgundy, is starting to show signs of concern that Vin De France is becoming more popular. They have started a campaign criticising Vin de France. To my mind they should be looking to their own failings and regulations. For example, as climate change bites harder vignerons will have to adapt, investigating different grape varieties will be part of that.

So, yes Merlot has its place (and thrives in the Colombié vineyard in Puimisson) but is it not exciting to see rare, old, traditional grapes being cherished and brought back to prominence? Let us appreciate the range and variety of grapes and the vignerons who bring out their best.

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